Monday, October 5, 2015

Why do some history teachers hate history?

There’s a lot about history that Edweek’s Greg Milo doesn’t like. He doesn’t like history books that cover 5,000 years of history, from the origins of civilization to the present day. Though he realizes it’s important for understanding the emergence of the Renaissance, he isn’t “much into” the Middle Ages. And he’s guessing that “many kids” don’t care about da Vinci, the Roaring Twenties, or “any of this history.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Greg Milo is a high school history teacher—or that he’s been at it for the last 13 years.

“How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” Milo’s students have asked. Somehow, Milo has conveyed to them (or failed to disabuse them of the notion) that things are worth learning only if they have this sort of practical value.

Of course, some stuff is so boring you’d only want to learn it if it's relevant to/necessary for real life functioning. For example, how to fill out a tax form; how to file an insurance claim; how to test software on iTunes; or how to adjust to the latest Microsoft Browser (which includes such fascinating revelations as: you can’t send attachments in Internet Edge; to do that you have to click on the three dots on the upper right corner and select “open with Internet Explorer”).

Compared with such narrow practical tasks, which are often ridiculously arbitrary and unenlightening in their specific details, history, for most ordinary humans, holds a great deal of interesting content: content that spans the Middle Ages to the Roaring Twenties; nay, from the origins of civilization through to the present day.

But for Milo, history is worth learning only if it strengthens students’ all-purpose thinking skills; only if it helps them make “reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event," “understand a decision’s consequences,” and act accordingly as “participating citizens.”

Given that students, as Milo notes, can practice such decision making skills “with any subject—not a boring one,” we’re left wondering what makes particular subjects within history boring.

This post is getting long, so I’ll end here, on this cliff hanger. Stay tuned for Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm seeing more and more math teachers who hate math!

They get a teaching job and then spend years tearing down real mathematics to show those "smarty-pants" mathematicians who gave them bad grades in college who is really in control.
:(

The Two-Year College Math Association (AMATYC) just endorsed a non-algebra track to an Associate's Degree that will transfer to a 4-year school. That means many students pursuing/receiving Bachelor's Degrees without ever learning high school algebra.

Anonymous said...

I am a recently retired community college math teacher who does NOT hate math. However, I do have a disagreement with the continual increase in the level of algebra-based math required for a student to get a four-year degree. I believe that all students who are capable of college-level work in any subject (except for a very few with specific disabilities in math) are also capable of learning Elementary Algebra, or first-year high school algebra. This should be required of the student BEFORE starting at a college of any level. However, the requirements of many four-year colleges do not stop with first-year algebra. They include algebra II, college algebra, and sometimes precalculus. I don't understand the necessity for any of these subjects for students whose degrees are in non-technical areas. There are many areas of mathematics besides algebra which can be just as rigorous in the sense of requiring thought and concentration, while providing more applicability for the students. I am thinking particularly of probability and statistics, in which most Americans are woefully under-educated. A rigorous probability and statistics course can reinforce the algebraic material from Algebra I while giving students a tool they can apply in their lives outside of education as well as in most of their chosen fields. Do not denigrate a so-called "no algebra" degree track without looking more carefully at the details.
(Actually, if I were in charge of the world, I would also roll back the more recent requirements that all high school students must pass Algebra II to graduate from high school. Talk about putting a requirement in place using an argument that confuses correlation with causation. You see, the people in charge of education policy were not adequately educated in statistics.)

lgm said...

Algebra 2 today contains a fair amount of Algebra 1 from yesteryear. For ex, the quadratic was in A1 in my day, now it is in A2. Similar slowing of pacing has occurred in other high school subjects, such as FL.

Anonymous said...

FL = foreign language? My older kids took (honors) Spanish 3 as freshmen; in which they finished all of the tenses/voices in grammar. They took honors 4, then AP language, then AP lit. Is this no longer common/possible?

Auntie Ann said...

I was wondering about how the skills of Alg I and Alg II break down these days. I think I remember doing conic sections back in algebra I when I was a kid--it would have been around 1980. Those seem pretty solidly algebra II these days.

Anonymous said...

@anon 8:27

While you speak in the abstract about programs or content that are as rigorous as the algebra courses, I will be specific. While I agree that it might be possible to create rigorous non-algebra based content for college students, this is not what is being presented.

See for example the Math Literacy series, developed in Illinois and now expanding its reach across the country (Sobecki and Mercer, Pathways to Math Literacy) as well as the Dana Center's Quantway and Statway programs. These are worksheet based, fill-in-the-blank style programs that train students to learn the correct answers, rather than teaching students important concepts and skills they can then use in problem solving situations.

The main reason that I teach mathematics is to help students to think independently.

Your comment creates a straw man. Most four-year colleges require Algebra II (which means at least through quadratics and linear systems for most average high schools) for freshman applicants. This new program will allow community college students to bypass this requirement creating a two-tiered system.

I find algebra to be one of the most powerful forms of human reasoning and that students are done a disservice if their institutions don't require and effectively teach these ideas.

By the way, I also believe that to understand and truly make use of statistics and probability, a person should have a fundamental understanding of algebra.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the students should have a fundamental understanding of algebra before studying probability and statistics at a college level. I believe they should acquire this understanding in high school.
Remember that the community college transfer students will only be able to use this to get around the four-year colleges' requirements if the four-year colleges allow it. The four-years have all the power in this situation. The two-year colleges can do whatever they want with their AA degrees, but if a student wants to transfer to a four-year college, they must fulfill the four-year college's general education requirements as well as their major requirements. If the four-year college says that their graduates must have college algebra, then the student must have college algebra to graduate no matter where they transfer from.
I also agree with you that many of the alternatives being proposed for algebra are unfortunately of the fill-in-the-blank, apply-a-given-algorithm type. These courses will not help students think about anything. It is also true, however, that in places where all students must take and pass college algebra, the college algebra course often turns into just such a rote-learning kind of course. No institution is happy with its math department when the passing rates in the required math class for graduation are low. Pressure from above, both subtle and overt, can force departments and/or instructors (especially those who are not tenured) to water down their courses in this manner.
What is the solution to this difficulty? New courses? Higher requirements for entering students? Less dependence on part-time/non-tenured instructors? I don't think anybody knows.
My personal opinion just happens to be that probability and statistics, taught in a thoughtful way, would be more useful to many students than the standard college algebra course. But that is just an opinion, and it presupposes that there is some way to ensure that the course is taught in a thoughtful way. I don't know if this is possible.
(I am the same anonymous as 8:27.)

Anonymous said...

Wrong, lgm. Algebra 1 now contains a third of what used to be taught in Algebra 2, along with a good chunk of AP Stats. Pre-algebra students are expected to have mastered linear functions and systems of linear equations. Algebra 2 not only includes conic sections but much of what was formerly taught in pre-calculus, including trig functions. Algebra 2 now also includes probability and z-scores.

lgm said...

Ha ha ha. The only stats taught here are mean, median, and mode. Obviously you dont live in my area. Gaming the test is what goes on here. The standards may say that the topics you listed are taught, but they arent. Only core basic, enough so ALL students score a pass, is taught. Those other topics are for elites. I do a good business teaching probability to students wanting sat math score improvement. Enjoy your wealthy world. Folks here know their kids will be taking noncredit remedial math at CC, at their own expense.